AMERICAN INNOCENCE ; New York Was Walt Whitman's Jerusalem " the Poet Was Ravished by Its Buildings, Its Boats and, Occasionally, Its Citizens. Now 21st- Century Gotham City Is Re-Igniting Its Love Affair with the 19th- Century Visionary, Says Philip Hoare " and Not a Moment Too Soon

By Hoare, Philip | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), August 14, 2005 | Go to article overview
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AMERICAN INNOCENCE ; New York Was Walt Whitman's Jerusalem " the Poet Was Ravished by Its Buildings, Its Boats and, Occasionally, Its Citizens. Now 21st- Century Gotham City Is Re-Igniting Its Love Affair with the 19th- Century Visionary, Says Philip Hoare " and Not a Moment Too Soon


Hoare, Philip, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


At my bedside New York public radio issues vague reports of explosions in London. Still jet-lagged, it's 5.30 am, I blearily turn on the TV, and for the next three hours watch, with mounting horror, scenes from the city I have just left. Tearing myself away, I leave the Soho Grand Hotel in lower Manhattan for the overheated streets outside; the subway entrances are already guarded by police with machine guns. Walking south through the Financial District, a BBC journalist vox-pops me at Ground Zero. Wall Street is flanked on one side by militia, and on the other by the media, in the shape of CBS and NBC's outside broadcasting vans.

There has to be an antidote to the louring doom of this morning. And I find it at the end of the street, at the water's edge. Here, where renovated 19th-century schooners stand with their rigging archaic against steel and glass, South Street Seaport Museum is celebrating 150 years of a text whose optimism is an implicit rebuttal to the awful start we've made to the 21st century. But is the exhibition's title " 'Walt Whitman and the Promise of Democracy' " anything more than an ironic phrase in 2005?

As a journalist-turned-visionary poet, Whitman saw America as the way forward, and in his collection, Leaves of Grass, he used the image of its best-known city as a metaphysical expression of his message: 'Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son' ('Song of Myself'). New York was nothing less than his Jerusalem. He hymned its boats, its buildings, its people. He regarded his commute, from Brooklyn across the East River via the Fulton Ferry, as a daily drama of human contact.

Whitman saw sexuality as part of the artistic process, and liberation as part of his mission: 'I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,/ And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man.' He loved his fellow man " to the extent that he would sleep with strangers he met on the street " and his poem, 'Calamus', contains some of the most explicit lines published in the 19th century: 'Or if you will, thrusting me beneath your clothing,/ Where I may feel the throbs of your heart or rest upon your hip'. Banned in Boston, Leaves of Grass was declared by Thoreau to be 'disagreeable, to say the least ... it is as if the beasts spoke', while Emily Dickinson announced, 'I never read his Book, but was told that he was disgraceful.'

But this year the sensational Mr Whitman is about to become current again, with the publication of Michael Cunningham's new novel, Specimen Days. Cunningham, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Hours in 1999, has created an experimental, three-part narrative which uses Whitman as its presiding genius; even its title is taken from Whitman's 'random autobiography' of 1882, Specimen Days and Collect.

Cunningham reconfigures the New York of the past, present and future in the shadow of Whitman's genius, starting with a ghost story set in 19th-century Manhattan, in which a deformed boy blurts out lines from Leaves of Grass: 'The smallest sprout shows there's really no death.' In the second section, the boy metamorphoses into a child suicide bomber in post-9/11 New York, part of a 'Children's Crusade' which takes Whitman's utopianism as its creed. And in the last section of the novel, Cunningham looks 150 years into the future, in which an android is programmed to quote Whitman: 'For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.' Specimen Days has already been optioned by producer Scott Rudin, responsible for filming The Hours; clearly the poet's profile is set for even wider exposure in the near future. But does what Whitman had to say to 19th- century America still hold out hope for our own uncertain era?

Walter Whitman was born on 31 May 1819 in Long Island and educated in Brooklyn where, at 13, he joined a printing office. By 17 he was writing for newspapers; by 21, he was editing one. Yet he devoted most of his early life to idling " 'I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass' " and it wasn't until 1855 that he published Leaves of Grass.

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AMERICAN INNOCENCE ; New York Was Walt Whitman's Jerusalem " the Poet Was Ravished by Its Buildings, Its Boats and, Occasionally, Its Citizens. Now 21st- Century Gotham City Is Re-Igniting Its Love Affair with the 19th- Century Visionary, Says Philip Hoare " and Not a Moment Too Soon
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